On Teaching

November 30, 2017

Helping Students Choose Fingerings VII 

I start this month’s column by following up on my closing comment from last month, that I would write about how to recognize, in these particular circumstances, when a fingering issue is really a hand distribution issue. I have written at length about hand distribution (as the principal subject of three columns, July, August, and September 2014, and in passing elsewhere). Since fingering choices can’t be made prior to hand distribution choices, it is a necessary part of the student’s autonomous thinking about fingering that they think about hand distribution. I enumerated this among the guidelines with which I would send a student off to work out fingerings. At this current stage, when you as the teacher are watching and evaluating a student’s fingering choices, you need to evaluate whether there is any awkwardness created by playing some notes in the hand that is less easily suited to reach them. 

It occurs to me that this is usually closely bound up with the use of the inner part of the hand. When notes are positioned such that either hand might reasonably play them, then it is (usually? always?) the thumbs and second fingers of the two hands that are in competition for those notes. It is also true that awkward hand position often (though not always) results from choices about the use of the thumb. Also, the decision to use the thumb or second finger to play a particular note will often change what the rest of the hand has to do with the other notes—the notes that “officially” are in that hand, and have to remain so. Therefore, as you watch, listen, and check for matters of concern in a student’s fingering choices, your alertness for hand position problems and your checking for hand distribution issues can largely converge. 


Hand distribution

A hand distribution decision that is an actual issue or question can only arise when there are more than two simultaneous or overlapping notes. Otherwise either one note per hand makes sense, or it is trivially easy to play both notes together in one of the hands, when the outer notes are close enough that either hand can reach the inner notes. If those conditions are met, and there is anything awkward-looking occurring, as I sketched out last month (twisting of the hands, hunched shoulders, grimacing or other uncomfortable expressions, tight-looking tendons or muscles), then asking the student to review hand distribution choices is a good idea. This will not always be the answer and will not always solve the problem to switch notes into the other hand. But perhaps it will, and it is logically the first easy thing to check. 

There are only two hand possibilities for any note, as well as limited fingering choices for notes that are within the reach of either hand. A significant proportion of what look like tricky fingering spots can be solved by correction. Again, it is a good idea to prepare students in advance to think about this, but equally important to keep an eye on it along the way.

Speaking of the thumbs, I am aware of the pitfalls of using thumbs on black notes, as you also know if you have read this column often. I mentioned that as something to send students off thinking about as they work on fingering. And clearly if you see a student using a thumb on a black note and it looks awkward, that is a spot that you and the student should scrutinize. However, the opposite problem can also occur. From time to time I see a student conscientiously avoiding playing a sharp or flat with the thumb when doing so would be best, maybe actually fine, maybe a bit awkward but the best available choice. Beyond just adjusting the fingering, this can be an opportunity to remind the student that guidelines are just guidelines, and that it is the maximum hand-comfort itself that counts. Guidelines are really guesses about what is likely comfortable most of the time.


Fingering forward and backward

One of the concepts with which I suggested sending a student off to work on fingering was that fingering should be accomplished forward and backward: that we shouldn’t always start somewhere and finger ahead in the music from that point. Rather, we should sometimes consider where we want the hand or a finger to be at a certain point and reason backwards from there. This is especially important when there are crucial spots that are difficult to finger. We must give those spots what they need, and work outward in both directions to incorporate them into the overall flow of the fingering. One way to notice when a student has given in to the common tendency to start at the beginning and go forward with fingering is to notice when a fingering crashes (or even crashes and burns!). That is, when everything looks smooth, makes sense, sounds continuous and accurate as to rhythm, and then suddenly falls apart: the hand looks bent out of shape, hesitations or wrong notes occur, and so on. A subset of this is the appearance of sudden, not musically sensible substitutions. An instance of this is demonstrated in Example 1.

I would not expect a student to attempt literally this fingering, though someone, perhaps a real beginner, might. It would probably be an executed but not written-in fingering, since the very act of writing this shows that it is too elaborate. But it encapsulates the principle of starting somewhere, running out of fingers, and not having a good way to recover. If the passage went like that exhibited in Example 2, then the impetus to use the fingering in Example 1 would be more understandable. If the passage went like that in Example 3, then the fingering in Example 1 would be in the conversation as a possible solution. This assumes a desired legato. As always, with non-legato technique, fingering possibilities are expanded.

There is an interesting fork in the road with substitutions in general. They can be either a sensible solution to a tricky fingering moment, preserving the desired articulation and using the hand efficiently, or a desperate attempt to rescue a fingering disaster. We must know how to tell these apart, and in evaluating a fingering that a student has brought back to us we can use a discussion of this distinction to help the student become aware of the best ways to use substitution. If we see substitution, especially if it is executed but not written in, then we should invite the student to talk about the reasons behind it.

Example 4 demonstrates another sample of a fingering’s crashing because of lack of planning. This is one that I have indeed seen frequently in real life. In this case, if a significant overall non-legato is what is desired, then there might be nothing particularly bad about this fingering. It might or not be comfortable or be best overall. But it is the kind of pattern that often or habitually arises not out of a purposeful decision about articulation, but rather from starting somewhere and not planning. If you observe a fingering like this and hear awkward irregularities in articulation, then it is something that should be questioned. 

Substitutions are one way under some conditions of achieving legato. In general, as you watch your student’s new fingering, bear in mind that there are many ways of making successive notes legato, and when they are intentional for the purpose they are important and good. But they are also at risk for not being the simplest way to execute the successive notes. If you see a student using a legato fingering, it looks awkward, and they are not actually executing the legato (that is, having planned out a somewhat complicated fingering for which the only rationale would be to connect notes, and they are in fact optionally releasing fingers and not connecting the notes), then this is a time to query. Sometimes an impulse to use a legato fingering at all costs comes about because that fingering feels like holding on to the notes for dear life and creates a sense of note security. That sense is a false one if the fingering is awkward or if it causes the hand to be rooted in one place when it should be free to move to another. 

One point to notice in watching student’s fingerings is whether there are spots where a finger seems to be falling naturally over a note, but the student plays the note with a different finger. There can be many reasons for this to happen. One of those is that the student is in fact planning just as I have been writing above. In that case, the benefit of starting a discussion about that spot is that it can allow the teacher to ratify the student’s sense that what is being done makes sense. However, it is also possible that the finger that seems to be falling naturally over the next note would have been the right one to use, and that the student hasn’t seen this. This is often because it is just a less-favored finger than the one that the student is using—finger 4 being often less favored than 3, or 5 being usually less favored than anything else, for example. But it can be for essentially no reason. Sometimes if I say, “Finger 4 is almost touching that note. Why not play it with 4?” the answer may just be, “Oh, yeah. That looks good,” or even, “I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.” Not thinking of options is universal, and is part of the reason that we study and teach. Sometimes there is an impulse to look for the more complicated when the simpler would have been just as good and actually better because it is simpler. Moments when a finger that seems to be easily aiming at the next note is not used are sometimes instances of this. This kind of thing happens with everyone, not just students and certainly not just beginners.


Fingering patterns

I wrote earlier about note patterns and how and when they can or cannot be a scaffolding on which to build fingering patterns. This is a key thing to look for when a student brings a fingering back to you. There is the two-headed basic manifestation: is the student missing any opportunity to achieve simplicity by applying good, repeated patterned fingering where it would work, and is the student imposing a patterned fingering where it is actually made awkward by something specific in the notes? There are also a couple of special cases. Is the student using the same fingering when there is an exact repeat of a passage? This can be literally a repeat sign applying to some sort of section or, for that matter, successive verses of a hymn, assuming that they are played the same way as to such things as “soloing out,” etc., or it can be a more limited return of the exact same notes. It can be in one hand or through the whole texture. It can be a full-fledged da capo as in the big E-minor Fugue of Bach among innumerable examples. 

Is there ever a legitimate reason to use a different fingering for two instances of exactly the same notes within the same piece? I am not sure that I have ever decided to do so. Maybe so with hymn verses, even apart from the obvious reasons derived from desired changes in texture, since the player might want to project a significantly different feeling with various verses, and that might make fingering and interpretive decisions result differently. In principle, a desire to project a different feeling when the same notes come back within a repertoire piece is a real possibility. In fact, it should always be considered. After all, a passage is different when it is being heard as a repetition or a hearkening back to something heard earlier. I do not recall that I have ever wanted to manifest this through different fingering: perhaps I have thought of these differences as being more modest or subtle. If a student plays the same thing with different fingering when it occurs at different places in a piece, that is likely to be because of insufficient planning or mistaken execution. But pointing it out could still spark an interesting discussion of the matter! 


Wrong notes and rhythms

What about wrong notes, wrong rhythms, out-and-out unsuccessful playing? The relationship between these sorts of problems and fingering planning is a complicated one. One point of good fingering is to make it as easy as possible to execute the notes. In fact that is what we have essentially been looking at as “good” fingering in these columns, since this discussion has by and large not been about fingering as an interpretive tool or as a tool of historical accuracy. However, it is always true that enough really well carried-out practicing can make almost any fingering work. So in a sense “good” fingering has as its purpose reducing the amount of practicing that will be necessary. And you could say that practicing has the purpose or effect of making it unnecessary to have planned good fingerings, although there is probably never a good reason to use it for that purpose. I have occasionally, just as an exercise, tried practicing a purposely awkward fingering, one that stops well short of being “dangerous” in the sense in which I have discussed that earlier, and trying to get it to work well. This has had mixed results. It has been successful enough to convince me that if I had had any reason to stick to it I could probably make it work, but not successful enough to make me think that that would ever be a good idea.

If a passage that a student reports having fingered carefully and practiced well doesn’t seem solid, it is reasonably likely that the fault lies with the practicing more than with the fingering planning, or that the passage is simply not ready to go at the tempo that the student is trying. Ragged, hesitant, or otherwise unsuccessful playing is not one of the most reliable indicators of non-optimal fingering. But note that this is really about the percentages: sometimes bad fingering is what is going on in these situations. It is quite common for a student to say, “I can’t get this bit right. There must be a better fingering I could use,” when in fact it really is all about the practicing.

I am going to leave it there for the time being. In so doing I am aware that, as I suggested at the beginning of last month’s column, I have by no means exhausted this subject. I have not, for example, talked very directly about how to make a more interventionist approach work. For me, the gist of that is to wear that approach lightly: to let students know that even though you are making the initial fingering choices, you want them to think those fingerings out and ask you questions about them. I may return to this specifically another time. I also could at this point write a whole column just about how my own approach to all of this has evolved during the time when I have been writing these columns! I may indeed return to that at some point, partly for the content of it, partly because it is a bit of a case study in self-teaching. 

Next month, I will be on to other things.


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